40 years on, Barbados still has its place in the sun

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am

In the realm of nationhood, four decades is considered the political version of a newborn. Yet over that period, the sun-baked Caribbean island of Barbados, which this year celebrates 40 years of independence from Britain, has evolved into a surprisingly mature society.

The island's 270,000 people, 90 per cent of them of African descent, are ruled by an independent parliamentary democracy closely patterned after the British system. At 365 years, it is the third-oldest parliament in the world and has delivered the island one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Education and health care are free and universal. The adult literacy rate is an astonishing 99 per cent, medical standards are world class, and crime rates have not increased in 20 years.

Freedom House, an institution that monitors human rights globally, has consistently cited the island as one of the freest nations in the world. And last year, the Barbadian stock market was the best performing in the Caribbean.

All this has made Barbados the envy of the region. Part of the secret of the island's success has been its stability. While the rest of the Caribbean was relentlessly fought over by the French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese, Barbados was under uninterrupted British control from 1627 until independence in 1966.

For three centuries, the British used the sun-splashed island as a 'single-crop colony'. Sugar cane meant vast fortunes for a few, but slave labour for many thousands. Most slaves were African, but as many as a third of Ulster's indigenous Celts were forcibly shipped to Barbados by Oliver Cromwell. These poor whites, who came to be called 'red legs', soon allied themselves with the larger African slave population and often inter-married.

This early alliance may account for the casual nature of present day Barbadian society, where racism is almost unknown. In 1804, the island's House of Assembly broke ranks with Great Britain and voted to end the slave trade in Barbados - 30 years before it was ended in England and 60 years before America abolished it.

Today, the compact, 430 square kilometre island is home to what may be the world's most unashamed Anglophiles. The island consists of low rolling hills covered in lush vegetation, but breaking the skyline in many places are the tall stone steeples of Anglican churches. The island is dotted with dozens of tiny hamlets with grand names like Hastings, Liverpool and Little Scotland. The small capital, Bridgetown, rises above Carlisle Bay, and boasts a statue of Nelson that predates the one in London's Trafalgar Square by 36 years.

Barbadians are crazy about cricket; schoolboys are taught the basics as soon as they can walk, the Queen has knighted their finest player and, next year, the island will host the finals of the World Cricket Cup. Polo is also a major attraction; first introduced by British army officers in the 1880s, today some feature matches attract up to 2,000 spectators.

The Barbadians may be devoted to all things English, but they lack the cultural stiffness of the British; there are close to 2,000 'rum shops' on the island, Bajan-speak for small roadside pubs where people of all classes, ages and races easily mix over drinks.

James Cobb, an ex-British army major who now works in real estate, has lived on the island for nearly five years with his wife and five children. 'All our friends are Barbadian. We are becoming naturalised, and our children are picking up a Bajan accent.'

He enjoys motor rallies and polo but says with a laugh: 'Sporting events around here are just an excuse to get the rum out. This [lifestyle] wouldn't happen in Kent.'

While the island is still a proud member of the British Commonwealth, the decidedly unsentimental central bank wisely pegged the Barbadian dollar firmly to the greenback in the 1970s. By that time, Barbados's high labour costs made profits from sugar cane hard to come by and the industry has been in steady decline ever since.

Once, 500 picturesque stone windmills crushed the cane. Today, only one remains, as a tourist attraction. Tourism is the island's main moneymaker, but the wily Barbadians only focus on the market's top tier.

The island's most celebrated hotel, the Sandy Lane, charges US$16,000 per night, but is almost always full. Golfer Tiger Woods married there, booking the whole resort for his family and friends.

But even ordinary hotels can cost US$380 a night during high season. 'We will never be a Bahamian or Jamaican low-cost type destination,' sneered one hotel manager.

The one problem in this potential paradise may be the sheer level of affluence. Traffic jams were once unknown; today they've become increasingly common in and around Bridgetown and en route from the airport. The government has imposed the highest import duties in the world, as much as 270 per cent on some vehicles; yet the motor-mad Bajans continue to buy new cars, and it's not unusual to see two or even three new Audis parked in front of the smallest bungalow.

There are no beggars in Barbados, no graffiti and no pickpockets. Environmental standards are strict, and even the water of Bridgetown's Carlisle Bay is still pristine. The island's national motto, 'Pride and Industry,' is not an empty slogan.

But the sunshine and soft trade winds, the shimmering beaches and the elegant hotels have lured more than just well-off visitors.

Barbados also boasts its fair share of billionaires. At last count there were 17. Many are British, but there are also Americans, Canadians, Irish, and at least one Russian.

Most have names that few would recognise, but in Barbados even when recognised, the super rich are allowed to blend in. There are also believed to be 100 millionaires, more than in the rest of the Caribbean combined.

Sir Charles Williams, a Barbados-born entrepreneur knighted by the Queen for his social work, knows several of the billionaires personally; his family firm builds their stunning estates and lavish winter homes. In many ways, his story reflects Barbados's own.

Asked why so many of the world's super rich, who can live anywhere, have been seduced by Barbados, he smiles and in a soft Bajan accent says 'because it's the best rock on the planet'.


Send to a friend

To forward this article using your default email client (e.g. Outlook), click here.

Enter multiple addresses separated by commas(,)